How is it that we are so often unhappy, when happiness is an almost universal goal in our culture? We seem to be just terrible at this. With the best of intentions – to get where we want to be and find relief from our suffering – we are inclined to go about seeking happiness in ways that are doomed from the start, and will make us feel even worse down the road.
It all stems from what Buddhists call shenpa. Shenpa is about those habits we always fall back on that never work. Many of us have some habit, whether it is eating or drinking or spending money, as a way to cope with anxiety, depression, boredom or loneliness. We know we will feel lousy the next day, but we always do it. Or we tangle ourselves up in self-righteous road rage, only to be left full of empty anger when the driver stops doing the annoying thing or drives off. Or maybe we get defensive or lash out when we get triggered by something that makes us uncomfortable. Maybe we close down; maybe we try to smooth everything over. That’s shenpa.
Every time we participate in our habitual patterns, we reinforce their power. And the attachment to these habits is very strong. Something happens, and we immediately withdraw, tighten up, lash out or otherwise go into the pattern that leads us away from the basic openness and goodness of our being. We may be able to feel it as it is happening, but we feel powerless to do anything about it. Because we empower shenpa with the notion that it will bring us comfort, that it will remove our unease, we get hooked.
To rise above shenpa – to free ourselves from the unhealthy cycle of getting attached to or hooked by triggers – we must be willing to renounce the urge to fall into the comfortable pattern. This is a very challenging proposition unless one has something with which to replace the urge. In the Buddhist tradition, the urge is replaced by mindfulness, by catching oneself in the act of closing down and replacing it with loving kindness and compassion for self. I know I don’t like this shenpa path, we say to ourselves, so if I can stay with the discomfort as a big brother would stay with a little brother, I am being there for myself.
Having a meditation practice is most useful for renouncing shenpa. Meditation teaches us how to open and relax to whatever arises, without picking or choosing. We can begin to see our reaction to the trigger with clarity and without judgment. We can use our innate intelligence as a force stronger than shenpa.
Every time you can catch yourself before becoming attached to your habit energy, the shenpa pathway becomes weaker. You now have the opportunity to observe yourself and begin to understand the root cause of your attachment. In the freshness of realization and gentle compassion, you can see how the hook grabs you.
This is a lifetime practice. It does not happen quickly, and it may never be fully behind you. It is important not to get attached to overcoming shenpa – this is just more shenpa! One needs to remember to be compassionate with self. Treat yourself with loving kindness, be willing to practice, and develop an enthusiasm for breaking the chain reaction. Now is the perfect time to begin!